The theatre has always been a place for me, as well as I know for others, that without question is a second home. It’s a place for solace, reflection, and enrichment that can constantly be found in many locations instead of one. Wherever you go, it travels with you ensuring that you can always have a place to come to fulfill the need to escape, to question, or to be merely be satisfied. Whatever need you need it to fulfill for that moment, it’s there.
Keeping the services that theatre provides us in mind, it’s hard then to reckon with what happens when that space no longer feels so welcoming. Last week, vice president-elect Mike Pence attended a performance of Hamilton in New York. Upon arrival, he was booed by several audience members to the point where Pence rushed to leave during the curtain call of the performance.
During which, one of the cast members, Brandon Victor Dixon recited a speech not attacking nor penalizing Pence for his beliefs or the response he had created by his appearance at the performance. Dixon took this moment to remind Pence how the cast and he invited him into this show, and encourage him to walk away with the ideals that they hope to emulate throughout such work in celebrating diversity, the need for art, and ensuring the opportunities for people to tell their stories. Dixon wished him nothing but the best in all sincere gratitude with a solid cast behind him.
The following morning, the #BoycottHamilton movement was created. People calling for the show to be shut down and encouraging others not to see it, protests erupting outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre, and a subsequent outburst that occurred here in the Chicago production of Hamilton. Articles upon articles rushed out offering their take on this matter.
People wondered how audience members could be so rude. Others wondered if this outburst was merely a distraction to take us away from focusing on other political decisions being made during this time. Others had to poke fun at such a situation in that those protesting such a show failed to realize how its acclaim and subject matter could prevent it from being in any way ignorant or unacceptable.
Amidst all of this, the incident did provoke a lot of necessary conversation in the theatrical community. The response from the artists and the creators of this production showed a lot that can be taken away and to keep in mind when moving through these difficult times:
The most effective way to combat hateful speech is though eloquent and well-intended rhetoric.
Instead of instigating an upset audience, the ensemble quickly composed themselves together and encouraged the audience to stop booing Pence. And instead of telling him off or expressing anger, they extended a hand to join them. They handled the situation through compelling and understanding, gentle words, that were still strong and effective, but not from a place of hurt or anger. It managed to silence the entire audience and get everyone to listen.
Collaboration and listening are needed now more than ever.
With a show that showcases many liberal viewpoints as well as crafted by a highly liberal creator, the material can speak for itself in effectiveness. But there's no way its message would be so successful if its ensemble executes that vision. The whole show furthered proved its solidarity and the show's view points by handling the incident with such a strong ensemble. The keys to the show’s success as well as their response to an unexpected event speak volume to what we need to be implementing most right now onstage and off.
Even when the principals of audience etiquette are stressed, each person will have their own level of understanding.
A thing that has become even harder to control with the need for technology at our fingertips, this is not the first instance we have had of improper audience etiquette and it won’t be the last. Some will feel the rules are looser or the consequences are minimal or that other rights are of higher value. We can only hope to give the expectations we seek, and that those are in return fulfilled.
When the events of the outside world are brought into the theatre, they cannot be ignored.
This is exactly why we have political art in the first place. Politics have always been a great source for material in the theatre and will continue to even more so as it continues to take its course of events. The same can be said of the patrons who attend. We can’t cater a show based on who’s in the audience and how the message or material might affect them. To do so would be ludicrous. We can only present the material that has been extensively rehearsed and planned and that audiences will take for it what they will. It only benefits even more if it can have a directly applicable connection to our world.
We must be willing to teach, not shut out.
The only way to combat ignorance is knowledge. The person being taught must be willing to listen and learn of course, but we mustn’t forget that we have that capacity to teach in fear it will not make an impact. There is always capability for growth and to expand upon one’s knowledge. It’s never too late even when we’re faced with someone who seems strong in their ways or stirs up many strong feelings in others.
The Hamilton cast headed by Brandon Victor Dixon understood and implemented all of these thoughts in their response to this disturbance. Their ideas and words were not only heard, but also echoed with full support by the show's creator, Lin Manuel-Miranda, as well as many pillars of the theatre community. This experience that seemed to be a stumble in the run of this production and and a disruption overall in the theatrical community actually proved to be a step forward. A step that shows how despite what's going on in the outside world we remain strong in ensuring the work we do is important in ensuring stories and people's voices are heard. In a time of a plethora of strong opinions, this is a right we must remember and not forget.